Locarno 2023 review: Nocturne for a Forest (Catarina Vasconcelos)

“Strange and disquieting, but also deeply meaningful in many ways, Nocturne for a Forest is a tremendously compelling film, and one of the most fascinating gems of the past year.”

We all tend to measure the talents of a filmmaker using different metrics, but one of the most consistently interesting ways to test whether or not someone is adept at visual storytelling is to give them only a few minutes in which to make a film and determine how effective they can be with limited time. Some can craft impeccable and outstanding works that feel complete, while others tend to create films that act as a dress rehearsal for a more expanded project. Squarely in the middle of the two extremes is Nocturne for a Forest (Nocturno para uma floresta), in which Catarina Vasconcelos puts together a fascinating experimental drama that carries a very deep message that functions as a revelatory exploration of the past. The film is set in a forest that sits at the foot of the Serra do Buçaco in the heart of Portugal, which the prologue notes as having been chosen as a sacred place by Pope Gregory XV, and thus reserved solely for monks and exclusively male visitors, but was home to a painting by one of the most important female artists in Portuguese history. The spirits of unnamed, anonymous women converse amongst themselves, discussing the legacy left behind by this decree, examining both historical and cultural concepts embedded deep within this period, and noting the changes that have occurred in the past 500 years, both within Portugal and elsewhere.

In her endeavour to explore the history of the Buçaco forest, Vasconcelos chooses a specific artifact to serve as the central motif of Nocturne for a Forest, through which her exploration of femininity and gender relations in both the past and present can be viewed. She chooses “Sagrada Familia”, a religious painting by Josefa de Óbidos, who was both one of the most respected painters in the Iberian Peninsula, and a remarkably prolific one – and this painting in particular bears relevance due to its depiction of a woman contained within a convent located in a forest that was legally inaccessible to women, with the poetic irony of this situation being the foundation for the film. Over the course of only fifteen minutes, the director presents a fascinating account of the conditions around the painting’s history, as well as the context in which it was displayed, which she reconfigures into this deeply meaningful exploration of how women were perceived and treated in the past. She contrasts it with modern perceptions, even explicitly mentioning the extraordinary disparity on issues relating to women’s rights and feminism (which the film notes was not even a part of the language when de Óbidos was at her peak), which creates a curious and compelling dichotomy in which Vasconcelos explores her fascination with the past.

In terms of both style and genre, Nocturne for a Forest is incredibly difficult to categorize, which seems to be the entire purpose. It is midway between a narrative feature and a documentary, although it bears very few traits of either, instead occupying an ambiguous middle ground between them, which means that this film not only conveys a fascinating message but does so in a unique manner. The majority of the film is silent, with the voice of the unnamed narrator only appearing at the beginning and end, bookending the narrative and giving the necessary historical context. Everything else is shown through footage of the Buçaco, which is illuminated in a range of different colours. Dialogue is shown on screen rather than heard, with the only sounds throughout most of the film being those of nature. It may seem bewildering at first, but we soon discover that this is a fascinating and engaging choice made by the director to draw a correlation between the historical context that propels the film, and its relation to the forest, which becomes central to the story in a way that is much more engaging than had it prioritized the monastery itself. Through exploring this simple story in the form of colourful images and discordant sounds, Vasconcelos creates a memorable and often quite strange depiction of the past, one that can seem jarring at first, but the sooner we surrender to the offbeat style, the further we can comprehend the stunning scope that drives this film.

Fifteen minutes is not much time to tell any story, especially one that has as much depth and nuance as we find at the heart of Nocturne for a Forest, which could have easily been a feature-length film, as there was more than enough to this story to justify a much longer running time. Yet, the length makes this film so intriguing, since it was not intended to be a complete work, but rather a fragment of something much larger. I am not usually a proponent of filmmakers requiring the audience to do external research or reading, since any film that requires this generally does so in order to compensate for narrative deficiencies or laziness on the part of the director. Not so with this film, which seems to actively provoke us to seek further information on the subject being explored. Vasconcelos has a deep fascination with this subject, but even she acknowledges that it is far too broad and layered to ever be fully captured on film. Instead she endeavours to craft a film that presents a single story that would otherwise not be all that impactful, and uses it as the introduction to our personal exploration of the Buçaco forest, which will be further enriched by looking at both the director’s comments on her relationship with the subject, and further discussions based around this film and the historical context as a whole.

A film about the construction of a wall intended to keep women out, as well as the legacy of those same women whose memories have allowed the walls to crumble, Nocturne for a Forest is a daring and provocative work that may be an acquired taste for those who do not have a penchant for the abstract, but will be stimulating to anyone who seeks to unearth the secrets of the past in a decidedly unorthodox manner. Convento de Santa Cruz do Buçaco has since been almost entirely demolished, and while there are still remnants of the monastery that stand, it is far from the sacred haven it was during its heyday – yet, at the heart of this forest, a chapel stands in which “Sagrada Familia” is still displayed, in much the same way as it was hundreds of years ago. The only difference is that the gender-based boundaries placed there by narrow-minded religious doctrine have been lifted, and the ancestors of those who were previously denied access to see this beautiful piece of art can now freely look upon it without the burden of being trespassers.  There is something quite satisfying about being armed with this knowledge, even if that painting represents the strife of women at a time when they were not only viewed as unequal to men, but treated as if their presence was somehow unholy, which is a concept that sadly still bears far too much resonance in the modern world. Strange and disquieting, but also deeply meaningful in many ways, Nocturne for a Forest is a tremendously compelling film, and one of the most fascinating gems of the past year.